The joy of being in an intimate theater space like The Public’s Anspacher Theater is that you truly feel that you’re one with the story. Every movement can be felt, every facial expression closely traced, but also every costume and staging choice is magnified. The small space was a good setting for The Public Theater’s production of Father Comes Homes from the Wars: Parts 1,2 & 3, a civil war story of the slave, Hero who accompanies his master to the war in hopes of gaining his freedom. But numerous confusing choices throughout the play made it hard to stay focused on the story at hand.
The play begins with the blues sung and played by Steven Bargonetti, dressed in everyday street clothes. Bargonetti has the type of soulful singing voice that tells a story and leads you on a journey, and his interludes were maybe my favorite part of the whole show. The scene opens with four slaves, or “The Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves” all betting if their friend Hero will join his master in war or stay at home with them. The bets of valuable items such as boots and silver spoons make it clear that their friend’s life is not so much of a concern, but more something fun for them to gamble with. Hero (played by Sterling K. Brown) is a hard-working man who does right by his master and is looked up to by the other slaves. His love interest, Penny (Jenny Jules) pushes for him to stay home, while his father (Peter Jay Fernandez) wants him to accompany his master to war so that he may gain his freedom and lead a better life. Hero’s father, The Oldest Old Man, walks on the stage wearing period appropriate clothing from head to ankle. But below the ankle, are a pair of grey crocs, similar to what my grandmother wears in the garden and my young cousins wear to the pool.
It was at this point in the play that distraction set in. Why was he wearing crocs? What is the meaning behind them? Up until this point the clothing, while not entirely period appropriate, was not causing a distraction. But those crocs. They sent my mind drifting and I found I could not take my eyes off of those ugly grey shoes.
The story continues to unfold, revealing that Hero’s master had promised him his freedom before and had not stayed true to his word. Hero has a long conversation with his father and decides to join his master, a colonel, in the war with the hopes of gaining his freedom this time.
Part 1 ends with another blues riff and the welcome departure of the crocs from the stage. As Part 2 begins, we see Hero and his master at a camp with a captive union soldier (Louis Cancelmi). While the colonel is out scouting for the Rebel Army they were separated from, the soldier talks to Hero and reveals that he was a slave, too, but now fights as a free man in the Union Army. Again, distraction. The soldier is played by a clearly white actor, which brought back the confusion and the “wait…did I miss something?” feeling.
Part 3 is where I really got lost. The original group of slaves from Part I are back, this time looking like a street hip-hop group from the 90’s, with fanny-packs and all. They are discussing their escape plans when Hero’s lucky dog, Odyssey (Jacob Ming-Trent), returns home after having gone missing for some time, announcing his master is alive and coming back. Hero soon emerges without his master, who died having never granted Hero his freedom. A joyously overwhelmed Penny is ready to toss aside Homer, who had become her companion in Hero’s absence, but Hero reveals that he was married, just a precaution in case Penny had moved on from him. Hero promises not to tell anywhere where the group is running off to and they all, Penny included, depart. Cue blues music and the end of the play.
As the play went on, I grew more and more confused, spending more time trying to figure out what I was missing rather than what was happening in the story. Father Comes Home is part of a 9 play cycle that goes into the present time. Was the modern clothing a way to connect this trilogy into the next set and the set after? Was it a remark on some of the racial injustices that are still present in today’s society?
The speaking dog was a role that did not seem necessary. The play had kept a fairly serious tone, but the over-excited pup brought a confusing energy to the stage and a cartoonish portrayal. Hero’s surprising confession that he was now married also seemed to be an unnecessary plot point that added to an already confusing scene.
This may be a play that doesn’t make complete sense until it is consumed in its entirety. While it did leave me wanting to see the next installment, there was also the fear that the next trilogy would just lead to more questions and more bizarre costume and casting choices. Overall, the acting was quite strong and the nearly three hours passed by quickly, but the small nuances throughout took away from the fine work being done.
It will be interesting to see where this work goes as it progress into the present. It could very well tie up loose ends and create a strong unity of work. Or it could leave me wanting to throw on some crocs and join my grandma in the garden. Time will tell.
- What: Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3
- Who: Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, Directed by Jo Bonney
- Where: The Public Theater 425 Lafayette Street
- When: Now until November 16th
- How: http://www.publictheater.org/en/Public-Theater-Season/Father-Comes-Home-…